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At the Grammys, respect for Joni Mitchell only gets deeper Print-ready version

Legendary singer-songwriter who performed at Sunday’s awards ceremony for the first time continues to light the way for a new generation of artists

by Alexander Castro
Rhode Island Current
February 6, 2024

Joni Mitchell, left, performs with Brandi Carlile, right onstage during the 66th GRAMMY Awards at Arena on Feb. 4, 2024, in Los Angeles. The influential singer-songwriter won a Grammy for best folk album for her ‘Joni Mitchell at Newport,’ recorded at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

It's not often an album recorded in Rhode Island wins a Grammy. But it makes more sense when you consider the album is by Joni Mitchell.

"Joni Mitchell at Newport," recorded at the Newport Folk Festival in 2022 and released last July, scored Best Folk Album at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards Sunday night. Mitchell performed at the awards ceremony for the first time ever. Onstage she wore an ensemble of black and gold - a regal outfit appropriate for an artist who has long sung aloud what some of us won't even admit to ourselves.

I have to admire synchronicity, and how coincidence always seems to erupt through music. I couldn't have even told you when the Grammys air, but the day before they did, on Saturday, I played Mitchell's Newport record in my friend's car.

Mitchell suffered an aneurysm in 2015 and her Rhode Island performance was her first live outing in two decades. Age and injury mean Mitchell's voice is markedly different from her youth. But on a song like "Both Sides Now," which Mitchell also performed at the Grammys, a deep feeling only gets deeper. The song's lyrics were poignant coming from a twentysomething Mitchell. Coming from an 80-year-old woman, they have acquired the patina of lived experience.

My friend, so effortless a music snob in ordinary circumstances, noted positively: "She kinda sounds like Nina Simone."

A voice that relays having suffered, but with some nobility - yes, I could hear that. I could feel it, too.

I discovered "Clouds," the 1969 album where "Both Sides Now" first appeared, when I was 17. I had found the album "Blue" even earlier, one of the many CDs I forced my parents to listen to in the car. I liked Mitchell's voice, but I'd be lying if I said I had any understanding of the songs' emotional contents.

Now Mitchell might be considered the grand matriarch of a lineage that has many adherents. Artists like Lana Del Rey, Mitski and SZA have revitalized a gloomy, self-reflective current among younger music consumers. The 2010s offered no shortage of party-oriented pop music, but recent years have seen more emotional diversity in major label offerings. Sadness, after all, can contain a certain honesty not found elsewhere.

Mitchell has always been an uber-popular artist and she's no stranger to the Grammys, having won 10 of them. I can't help but find some laughter in the contrast between Mitchell's mainstream status and her frequent subject matters of alienation and unknowing. Many of Mitchell's best lyrics are about staring at something straight on, to be intimate with something or someone but still unsure of what lurks in its deepest recesses.

"Both Sides Now" is her most noted opus in this genre. "It's love's illusions" Mitchell recalls - the dizziness of a first date, full of moonlight and ferris wheels. Experience, she finds, does not always convert to wisdom. I think about what I knew when I first heard this song as a teenager, and then I think about what I know now. I'm amused at the distance between my past and present selves, but also how some things change and others never do. I imagine Mitchell appreciates these ironies, too - the dry humor in her lyrics suggests as much.

What songs of hers did I like when I was 17 anyway? I suppose it was the poppier ones, like the jangly "Carey," which also appears rerecorded on the Newport album. In it, Mitchell promises her date, "a mean old daddy," that she'll "put on some silver" for a night on the town.

Well, I can't say I related to those lyrics as a Catholic schoolboy. But there are some things I've learned in the years since, having looked at life from more than a few sides.

For instance: Carey, I would much prefer to wear gold.

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Added to Library on March 29, 2024. (753)


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